Taking no prisoners

Saturday, 11 April 2020 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

As Sri Lanka gradually comes to terms with the wide-spanning repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, it also gives us pause to think of some of the, admittedly hard to define, silver linings that might emanate from this crisis.

It was announced this week that Sri Lanka’s judicial system was poised to release thousands of prisoners in remand custody, many of whom had been charged with minor drug-related offences. Sri Lankan prisons have long had a problem of overcrowding, and as the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic looms ever larger it’s understandable that tensions within prisons were fast reaching a boiling point.

In truth though, one can only hope that this is the start of some much needed reforms for Sri Lanka’s stretched prison system – something that has been a long time coming.

Sri Lankan prisons are notorious for being congested, poorly supplied and badly funded – to o the point that in 2016, following an observational visit, the United Nations Special Rapporteur had criticised the prison system as being characterised by very deficient infrastructure and pronounced overcrowding. Something which has led to a situation in which there is an acute lack of adequate sleeping accommodation, extreme heat and insufficient ventilation. Overpopulation also results in limited access to medical treatment, recreational activities or educational opportunities. The UN insisted that these conditions combined resulted in a form of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of people.

Indeed, levels of population have been observed to exceed capacity by well over 200% or 300%. Vavuniya Remand Prison in particular has been a striking example of overcrowding. At the time of the UN visit, one of its halls hosted 170 prisoners, which gave 0.6 metres of space per person. In the same building, other prisoners were forced to sleep on the staircase for lack of space in the detention areas. In addition, cells designed for one person were occupied by four or five inmates. 

The cause for this overcrowding is no mystery; congested prisons are a direct result of lengthy sentences for non-violent and drug-related offences. Suspects are subjected to lengthy remand periods with many being detained for years and some even up to 10-15 years. 

Over the years activists have urged Sri Lanka to consider measures to make more non-violent offences bailable and to experiment with alternatives to incarceration. Ironically, one of the key points that had been presented in the past as justification for the return of the death penalty was that convicted drug smugglers were directing operations from within prisons. However, this is largely due to a corrupt and inefficient system that has many failures and oversights across the system. 

Sri Lanka’s focus on punitive rather than restorative justice, coupled with a sluggish legal system that takes years to hear cases, outdated laws and an underfunded prison system make dealing with crime extremely challenging. But if Sri Lanka wants to push ahead with a disciplined society that adheres to law and order, then we need to start taking a serious look at rehabilitating those not guilty of serious offences back into society. This, after all, is the whole point of having an effective legal system.